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Proof that the Cowboys struggle to adjust at halftime, and it’s crushing their season

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The third quarter has been an outlier in every way imaginable for the Cowboys in 2017.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

So, one of the memes of the Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 season has been the team’s poor halftime adjustments. The argument is the Dallas coaches are getting out-adjusted at halftime. Opponents are allegedly able to make adjustments at halftime that allow them to reverse first half trends and take control of games immediately after the halftime break.

But is this really true? Are opponents better at attacking and defending the Cowboys directly after the break than they were before halftime? Well, I ran the numbers and I can unequivocally say they absolutely have, and I have a single chart that proves this:

Now, you may rightfully wonder what those numbers mean? But even without knowing what the numbers represent there’s no debate that the third quarter stands out as an extreme outlier in this metric. In the third quarter the Cowboys suffer a significant disadvantage in this mystery stat while in every other quarter the Cowboys enjoy a significant advantage. So, let’s look at how we arrived at the above chart.

The NFL tracks every drive and segments them by quarter. Drives are defined by which quarter the drive concluded. If a drive starts in the first quarter but ends in the second quarter the NFL assigns it to the second quarter. Similarly, drives that begin in the third quarter but end in the fourth quarter are assigned to the fourth quarter. Thus, by definition, more drives are assigned to the second and fourth quarters than the first and third quarter.

But this works well for our purpose of trying to determine if the Cowboys are really ineffective at halftime adjustments. Every drive that is assigned to the third quarter will, by definition, be a drive that both started and ended in the third quarter. That seems like a pretty good sample of drives that are most affected by halftime adjustments.

Offense

Let’s check out the numbers, by quarter, for the Dallas offense:

We see the third quarter doesn’t particularly stand out. Yes, it ranks lowest in points scored per drive, but not much lower than the fourth quarter. And in terms of plays per drive it’s significantly higher than the first quarter and in terms of yards per drive its higher than the fourth quarter. Overall, it doesn’t seem that bad. But let’s look at the points scored per drive in chart form:

Here, the distinction between the third (and fourth) quarter to the first and second is pretty stark. There’s no arguing that the offense simply hasn’t been as effective in the third quarter as it has been in the first and second.

But are those numbers skewed by any one particular game? Let’s look at each individual game to see:

Here we see some pretty eye-opening results. While Dallas has scored 2.1 points per drive overall in the third quarter, the truth is those results are skewed by two games (SF and KC) when the team scored touchdowns on each of their three third quarter drives.

Otherwise, the third quarter has been a barren offensive wasteland, with only 16 points scored in 15 drives. In the team’s four losses the Cowboys haven’t scored a single third-quarter point.

Another way of looking at it is to calculate the percent of games where the Dallas offense has failed to score any points in a quarter:

Summarizing, the Dallas offense has failed to score any third quarter points 56% of the time while failing to score points only 15% of the time in every other quarter. The data certainly indicates that teams are making halftime adjustments that have stifled the Dallas offense.

DEFENSE

How has the Cowboys’ defense fared? Here’s the table:

The third quarter has been the worst quarter, by far, in terms of points allowed per drive. Overall the team gives up only 2.1 points per drive, but in the third quarter that number jumps to 2.7. But in terms of number of plays per drive or yards per drive the numbers are better than both the first and second quarter and trail only the fourth quarter’s really good numbers.

And yet, when we look at points per drive by quarter, the third quarter is again an outlier, much higher than both every other quarter and the team’s overall number. The week-by-week table highlights the issue:

Three times the Dallas defense has allowed the maximum points allowed per drive (7) in the third quarter. Compare that with the team’s number for every other quarter:

Thus we arrive, full circle, back where we started. The following shows the variance in points per drive by quarter:

It’s the exact same chart we started with at the top of this article.

The 2017 Dallas Cowboys are a good team. Overall, they’re outscoring opponents by 0.4 points per drive. With teams averaging 11 drives per game that translates to 4.4 points per game or 70 points over a season. Only five teams outscored opponent’s by 70+ points in 2016:

  • New England: +191 (12-4 record)
  • Atlanta: +134 (11-5 record)
  • Dallas: =115 (13-3 record)
  • Kansas City: +78 (12-4 record)
  • Pittsburgh: +72 (11-5 record)

But in the third quarter the Cowboys are a much different team. They’re outscored by 0.6 points per drive. That’s 6.6 points per game or 106 points in a season. That’s a really bad team.

So the meme is accurate. The 2017 Dallas Cowboys are a good team with really bad third quarter problems. Why the team struggles on both sides of the ball after the halftime break is a mystery but it’s definitely a real thing. This is an area that must improve if the Cowboys’ have any hope of making this season a success.